Tasmanian community fights back over mining in the Tarkine

Twelve months ago, it looked like the mining industry’s hopes for developing the rich mineral deposits contained in the Tasmania’s Tarkine region were doomed.

The environmental movement seemed to be on a roll, and Tasmania’s mining industry was under pressure.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke had just overturned approval for the so-called super-trawler, the FV Margiris, to operate in Australian waters – after a bitter public backlash.

Meanwhile an alliance of farmers, environmental activists and Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones were leading a popular rebellion against coal seam gas developments.

The on-line campaign outfit Get Up! had just placed full-page advertisements in the major mainland newspapers, calling for the Tarkine to be added to the National Heritage Register.

Those advertisements featured an image of Tony Burke in the Tarkine forests, looking wistfully at the forest canopy.

A few weeks later, concerned members of The Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) at mines in Rosebery and Savage River, in North West Tasmania, met to discuss the situation.  At the end of those meetings, the mine workers voted unanimously to ask the Union’s National Office to conduct a campaign on their behalf opposing the proposed Heritage Listing.

The resulting Our Tarkine, Our Future was launched at the AWU’s Tasmanian State Conference in Hobart last September.

The campaign built on the region’s long and proud history in mining and resource industries, and the fact that the Tarkine region is not just a pristine wilderness. It is a place where real people with real families live and work. Where real people need a real future.

The central component of the campaign was a community petition.   The Union mailed out copies of the petition to all its Tasmanian members, and delivered flyers to around 20,000 households across North West Tasmania.

A low-cost television advertisement was produced, which ran locally in Tasmania and nationally on Sky News.

The AWU also pursued a vigorous approach to media advocacy, led by high-profile National Secretary Paul Howes.

Within weeks, it was apparent that the campaign had struck a nerve with the public.

Local AWU officials were taken aback by the level of positive feedback they were getting.

The final act of the campaign was a public rally in the city of Burnie, on Tasmania’s North West Coast.  The Union invited a number of community and political leaders to speak, found a local compere to host the event, and invited the Burnie Rotary club to put on a fundraising barbeque.

The atmosphere on the day felt like a big footy match – as hundreds of people rolled in from about ten o’clock in the morning.

The final attendance was around 3,500 people, an extraordinary turnout for a rally in a city with a population of just under 20,000.

About a week later the Union sent a delegation of local miners to Parliament House in Canberra, where they met with Minister Burke and presented him with the petition signed by 6,600 people.

The delegation left Canberra satisfied that the Minister understood their concerns, and would weigh up the needs of both conservation and development in making his decision.

Nonetheless, it was still something of a surprise when the Minister announced in January that he had rejected the Heritage Council’s advice to list the entire Tarkine region on the Heritage Register – instead placing just 20,000 hectares on the Register for its Aboriginal heritage values.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s fair to ask how much credit for this policy outcome can be attributed to the AWU campaign?

To be fair, a few things did work in the campaign’s favour.

In particular, community frustration with the drawn-out Tasmanian Forestry ‘peace deal’ had been building for some time, and the AWU campaign effectively became an outlet for that frustration.

Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne, however, made it clear that she thought the AWU campaign did influence the decision.

In a media statement Senator Milne said:

“If anyone had any doubt as to who is running the environment portfolio in this country, they need look no further than the mining industry and their spokesperson Paul Howes.”

But in reality, Paul Howes is a union leader, not a mining industry executive.

There was no back-room deal or factional power-play – this was simply an exercise in good old-fashioned people power.

In short, the debate was won by a well-organised grass-roots community campaign.

The most important and effective element of the campaign was the way the AWU worked collaboratively with other organisations.

The union engaged with the mining industry, with local councils and with local community groups.

It’s often easy fall into the trap of assuming that the pro-industry or pro-development argument will win these sorts of political debates by default.

But the lessons from the public backlash against the Super Trawler, and against the expansion of the coal seam gas sector, shows what can happen when industry takes community support for granted.

On the other hand, when business, workers and the community speak with a united voice, it’s a very powerful voice indeed.

The Our Tarkine, Our Future campaign demonstrated that in a genuine partnership, these groups aren’t just industry stakeholders, they can be vital industry advocates.

Stewart Prins is a communications and community engagement consultant. He was previously National Communications Coordinator for The Australian Workers’ Union. This is an edited version of a speech presented at the Tasmanian Minerals Council annual conference in May.

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.